Not to be all cheesy, but it’s never too late to learn new things about yourself. When talking about coming out as LGBTQ+, though, so many of the stories we see revolve around those discovering their identities in their teens and 20s. Hello, Stranger Things, The Bold Type, Riverdale, One Day at a Time, hell, even throwing it back to Glee. I could go on.
Personally, I didn’t come out as bisexual until college, and even that felt “late” compared to other queer kids I knew and what I saw in the media. But real talk: No matter what the usual coming out narrative suggests, a ton of people realize, accept, or share that they’re not straight or cis later than their 20s.
To highlight this common experience, I talked to five people of different sexualities and genders in the LGBTQ+ community about their coming out journeys. Their stories show that, despite what you may have internalized, there is no “typical” coming out experience.
“Being around lesbians made me realize I was a lesbian.”
“I was born in 1980, which is hardly the dark ages, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near where we are now in terms of LGBTQ+ culture, understanding, and progress. The assumption everywhere was, ‘You are a girl, thus you will like and date boys, eventually marry a boy, have babies, and live happily ever after.’
I first started identifying as bi when I was around 15. Being an unpretty teen, I was perhaps extra desperate for boys to give me some proof I was likable. That very low self-esteem contributed to years of believing I wanted to be with boys, then men. But in my mid-20s, I started quietly wondering if I was actually gay.
The relationship I was in with a man from age 23 to 27 both propelled and hindered my sexuality journey. I truly liked him a lot and I was attracted to him, but now I believe it was more in a general, ‘God put this person together quite nicely and it makes my aesthetic brain happy’ sort of way. But it also became clear—to him long before it did to me—that I simply didn’t want a sexual hetero relationship. In breaking up with me, he said, ‘I think you should date women.’
Admitting he was right was scary, because then what did that mean about our whole time together? Was I a fucked up, selfish jerk who had strung this great guy along? Was I wrong about this most intimate aspect of my own damn self? I didn’t want to think I could lack such crucial, and for most people, simple and basic knowledge of myself.
Maybe this is a serious ‘No shit, Sherlock’ statement, but being around lesbians made me realize I was a lesbian. I’d say that realization probably came around a year after I moved to San Francisco, when I spent my first Pride in the city. I finally had some queer crew to hang out with, and so much gayness to soak in. They helped me see myself reflected in them. It was a similar thing with coming out as asexual a few years ago—exploring that community online was a major lightbulb moment for me. Once I started using the label, it felt so obviously appropriate that I wondered why I’d never thought of it before.
By a certain age, especially as a woman I think, I’ve just started to give nary a fuck what other people think of me. I’ve had the time to explore, and I’m making choices based solely on what works for me, and not what others expect of me. I get to be the Cool Older Queer who can support younger folks on their own journeys. And hopefully, no one will make the stupid ‘phase’ comments I used to get. I’m one year shy of 40. There are no phases anymore.”
“I didn’t want to embrace a label that came with so much baggage.”
“A lot of things kept me from my sexuality growing up. For one, I was raised as a Catholic. I was also heavy as a kid and I got a lot of negative messaging around my worth because of it, which does not encourage you to explore other things that will make you different. I remember being younger and feeling somewhat of a sexual attraction to girls, and I was just like, la la la la la.
I finally had my first relationship with a woman 10 years ago. By that time, I had moved away from my town full of conservative Republicans to New York City. We went to lesbian events and things like that together, but I knew I never fit there. I liked them, they just didn’t feel like my people.
It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to use the label bisexual. I didn’t want to embrace a label that came with so much baggage. People who label themselves as bisexual can be looked upon with distrust by the lesbian community, and seen as wishy-washy by gay men. I’m not even a big label person in general, but I understand it’s how we categorize things and understand them—or pretend to understand them.
I don’t have any regrets about coming out when I did, because I don’t know if I was strong enough to deal with all that before then. But people today are lucky. There are so many resources, from social media to centers to media portrayals. People can find each other safely and much more easily online than you could in my day.”
“I was genuinely convinced that I was just a girl who didn’t know how to do it right.”
“I’m a female-to-male middle school teacher. I came out to my boss last week (she was amazing), and I’m starting my medical transition in two weeks. Oh, and because I’m trying for LGBTQ+ bingo, I’m also asexual.
I’ve never not felt this way, but I didn’t know what that meant about my sexual or gender identity. Growing up, I was genuinely convinced that I was just a girl who didn’t know how to do it right and hadn’t had her lesbian awakening yet. Everyone else seemed to know a secret to being a woman that I’d just not discovered. It was the same with being asexual. It was like everyone else knew something I didn’t.
The kids I teach are understanding and usually more open-minded than adults. I hate attention, but I remind myself that this might just be the most important thing for someone who is 14 and in the wrong body to see. Maybe if I had had a role model, I wouldn’t have waited to come out until I was 31.
An upside of coming out later is that the insecurity of my 20s is gone. By now, I know I’m going to be alright. I also don’t buckle under the pressure from doctors or therapists who think they know better than me. As a younger adult, I would have taken it on the chin, probably, and then gone into a deep depression. Now, I have the life experience to back up what I’m saying. My opinion matters in a way it didn’t when I was younger.
A downside is that I’m perpetually explaining and coming out and talking about details. But I’ve never worried about coming out or transitioning. It just took me time to realize that when people said they didn’t feel their assigned gender was right, that was what I was feeling. However long it takes you to come to terms with yourself, it’s not time wasted. Some people just have a longer road to walk.”
“Years of pretending to be someone that I wasn’t helped me build an armor.”
“I came out as a gay woman in the past couple years. I was so terrified of the idea of being gay that I half-repressed it, half-avoided it. There wasn’t a religious or parental influence, there was never anyone telling me it was a bad thing. I was just terrified of being different.
I quit my job back in 2012 in corporate graphic design to become a full-time farmer and freelancer on this little piece of land in upstate New York. It took being alone on a farm for a decade to really get to the point where I could come out. My farm has become a little paradise and it’s been hard as hell to keep it, but that fight is what gave me the strength to come out. There was too much proof that I’d been able to do hard things and be OK. And you get exhausted, pretending to be someone you’re not.
I think if it wasn’t for the internet, it would’ve taken me even longer than it did. My farm is in a town of 1,800 people without a lot of queer spaces, but I’m on Twitter constantly, and it feels magical. There’s a huge queer farm community online. I think there are a lot of us because there are so many cliches about outdoorsy women being gay, and we wind up needing isolation to escape the stereotypes and be ourselves.
It’s like going through a second adolescence. I get to be excited about things like dating and getting out there, and probably being really loud and really queer online just because it’s been so bottled up inside me for so long. It’s the first time I’ve actually felt like I’ve been able to be myself in my entire life.
I really like that my life has happened the way that it has. Years of pretending to be someone that I wasn’t helped me build an armor that I use every day to get through life. It’s nice that I can put it on and take it off when I want to.”
“I didn’t know I was allowed to be trans.”
“I came out last year as a trans woman. I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of it before then. I’d started following more people on Twitter who are involved in the trans community and there’d be tweets about feelings trans people have and things they go through. I saw myself reflected in those experiences, and I thought, ‘Wow, it would be awesome if I were trans.’ And then I realized, ‘If you’re wishing you could be trans, you probably are.’
It’s kind of goofy, but I took this quiz online, and it was like, ‘Congratulations! You’re probably trans.’ The question that kind of sealed it for me was, ‘If—with no complications—you could permanently turn into a member of a different gender, would you?’ I absolutely would.
I told my wife two weeks after I realized. It was a little embarrassing when I initially came out to her, because I hemmed and hawed for a while like, ‘I want to talk to you about something, it’s kind of a big thing,’ and by the time I actually spit out that I’m trans, she was like, ‘Oh, thank god. I thought you were breaking up with me.’ She’s taken it really, really well. She was like, ‘Either way, that’s fine, I just love you for who you are,’ which is definitely what you want to hear.
My son was 3 when I came out, and my wife and I had to talk a lot of things through. Like, ‘Is he going to keep calling me ‘Dad’ because that’s what he’s used to and we don’t want to confuse him? Is this going to affect him at daycare when I start presenting female?’ As a trans parent, those are things you have to really be aware of. We told our son, ‘Daddy is now Mama, and this is Mommy, and we’re your two moms,’ and that was that. My son was much more relaxed than we expected because, well, he’s 3. But he’s just like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’
I didn’t know I was allowed to be trans. Being trans seemed like this whole thing, like you get your card from the trans association after you pass the trans test. All the trans people I follow project this air of confidence and security, like they’ve never questioned if they were trans. And that wasn’t me. But for some people, it just takes longer to figure out.”
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.